Saturday, October 4, 2014

Till the end of the age

There are few things I am as certain of, as I am certain of the loving-kindness and the mercy of God, toward mankind, and toward every creature.

I was standing in the narthex (inner porch) of my parish church as an usher and interpreter during our annual Greek Festival. It was the evening, and one of our deacons, the former history teacher, was engaging a small audience in the rear of the nave (the worship hall) in his usual three hour long question and answer session. His audience was spellbound. The deacon was ‘on a roll’ as they say. I was ushering the occasional sight-seers into the nave through the side entrances, letting them know it was permitted to walk around the temple while the talk was going on, and to photograph anything they liked.

At one point I noticed a clutch of teenagers standing together at the front of the temple near the pulpit, and on the right side of the fence that defines the soléa (the steps leading to the altar) two young girls ‘occupying’ themselves in front of a stand of seven-day votive lights. Near them, leaning against the end of the front right pew, was a young woman. I had no misgivings about the group of youth. They seemed quietly engaged in discussing the ikonostasis (icon wall separating the nave from the altar area, which is not visible to the people except through the central gateway, when it’s open). But the young girls.

I thought I had better take a look. It’s common during the festival for visitors, even sometimes adults, to linger at the various candle-stands and sandboxes (where we offer tapers by sticking them upright in the sand, to mark our presence in the temple, or an intercession) in various states of confusion or curiosity. Unfamiliar with our customs, the adults sometimes need to be instructed where to get fresh candles (often they see us drop candle remainders in the little cans below the sandboxes and think that’s where you get a candle to light). Children like to linger at the votives, and light as many of them as they can.

Lit candles, especially in colored glass containers, are so pretty. I made my way to where the two girls were ‘experimenting’ with the seven-day votives. I watched them for a second or two and then asked the young woman, ‘Are these two girls with you?’ She responded that they weren’t. So, I spoke to the girls, ‘Excuse me, but you really are not supposed to be lighting these candles,’ and then, as they were old enough to understand, I explained in a mild voice that these candles are lit by people who are praying ‘really hard and long’ for some special need, and so we shouldn’t light them as a decoration.

‘Nothing you see in this church is just for a decoration, or just to make it pretty,’ I said. ‘Everything here has a purpose. Nothing is done just for show.’ The girls seemed to understand, and apologized. Mission accomplished. I find that if you approach everyone who is visiting the temple as a tourist but doing something inappropriate, assuming they are not trying to be offensive (even when they obviously are) it helps keep the peace in a friendly way, and sometimes leads you into another encounter. And as we believe, every encounter is from Christ. Everyone is sent. He sends them to us, and us to them.

So it happens, dependably. The young woman turned to me in the moment after the girls left and asked, ‘What is behind those doors?’ pointing to the closed evangelist doors of the Beautiful Gate in the center of the icon wall. ‘A free standing altar embedded with the relics of saints, and behind that an empty throne in which no one but the Emperor can sit and, when there is no Emperor, only Christ Himself.’ Then we continued a quiet dialog about the visual elements at the front of the church, while the teaching deacon kept up his pace at the opposite end of the nave.

At one point the young woman looked at me and said, ‘I am interested in learning about this church as part of the heritage of my family. You see, I am Greek by nationality.’ I asked her if she was an Orthodox Christian or unchurched, and she startled me when she responded, ‘I am LDS.’ At first I almost didn’t know what to say, but the direction of the encounter definitely took a sharp curve. I revealed to her that I had studied Mormon beliefs, read and even studied all their scriptures when I was in college, where my best friend gently tried to convert me to his faith. When I mentioned he was RLDS, she looked disgusted.

RLDS is a denomination (now called Community of Christ) to which the family members of the original Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. continue to belong, and for which they at first provided leadership. They had not followed Brigham Young and the majority of the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) to Utah. I mentioned that I had traveled with my friend to Independence, Missouri, the LDS ‘centerplace’ and even met Joseph Smith III, the grandson of the original prophet. Her look and voice barely concealed her disdain as she responded, ‘We don’t have anything to do with them.’ I realized then my mistake.

So, we talked a little more about the features of the Orthodox faith expressed in the church surroundings. I told her that I had given the Mormon religion as serious a consideration as I had ever given any proposition put before me, but that I could not square its view of Church history with the facts of that history as recorded in the books, both the Holy Bible and the works of historians of the Christian era. My testimony was that the Jesus Christ that I know by personal experience conforms to what I find taught about Him in biblical, that is, Orthodox, Christianity. I asked her forgiveness, as I did not mean to offend her faith.

She said she wasn’t offended, and offered her testimony. Then she told me that the only way a person can know the truth about anything is to ask the Holy Spirit to personally teach them, point by point, and that if they do this, they will arrive at the same absolute certainty that she has about the truth of the Mormon prophet and religion. I responded that I believe something similar with regard to Christ, whom we call ‘the only Teacher of mankind,’ and that by living my life in Him I also have reached a point of absolute certainty in my faith as an Orthodox Christian.

Our encounter ending peaceably enough, she identified some members of my parish that were co-workers of hers and who had invited her to church to experience the Orthodox faith for herself. She said she wanted to do that to try to understand what her ancestors had believed, but I could tell she was definitely looking at this prospect as simply an historical enquiry. She had the last word by inviting me to watch a movie soon to be released in the theatres, ‘Meet the Mormons.’ She said I was sure to enjoy it, and that she was planning to see it also. She left the temple, and I, silence in my heart, went back to my duties.

How little we notice Christ standing in our midst, silent, maybe invisible to most, offering Himself for us, His life for us, and for the world He came to save! We occupy ourselves, like those young girls, innocent perhaps of the great import of the beauty with which He surrounds us, signs of His permanent and persistent loving presence, and without meaning to offend Him, simply amuse ourselves in unknowing unbelief. Or like the young woman, whom His love has been carrying, protecting, instructing in truth, while her mind orbits human fallacies passed as revelations, unwilling to acknowledge He has been faithful to our race in His promise, ‘Lo, I am with you till the end of the age.’

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